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Review: Kent Nagano at the Broad Stage

May 17, 2009 |  3:41 pm

Stockhausen Kent Nagano, who now commutes between the Montreal Symphony and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, has been a rare visitor to Southern California since ending his tenure as Los Angeles Opera music director three years ago.  But Saturday night he appeared at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica with a handful of Montreal Symphony players, two Inuit throat singers and a bassoon playing bear.

First the orchestra’s second associate concertmaster, Marianne Dugal, gave a labored solo performance of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-Minor Violin Partita. Then the bear played Stockhausen’s “In Freundschaft” (In Friendship).  Then Nagano went on stage to give a few explanations before, he said, things got any more bizarre. Still to come were the throat singers, along with Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” newly staged by William Friedkin.
The history behind the first half of the program, Nagano said, was a recent trip he and a few volunteers from the Montreal Symphony took to Nunavik in the Canadian arctic.  They were told they wouldn’t be welcome until the leader of their tribe took a purification ceremony.  Nagano described that as eating a number of exotic items – uncooked.  Afterward it was OK for bassoonist Mathieu Harel to perform Stockhausen in a bear costume.

Actually the getup had been the composer’s idea.  The piece -- which is meant to last around 15 minutes but which Harel made it through in 10 -- was written originally for solo flute and later transcribed for clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and other instruments.  The composer’s intention was to produce different registers and different forms of musical activity simultaneously with an instrument in which such simultaneity should be impossible. 
For the 1984 bassoon version, Stockhausen got carried away.  He remembered his boyhood teddy bear and instructed a costumed player to raise and lower his head to match the score’s three registral levels.  The trick is not to appear silly.  Harel hammed it up, but he played difficult music impressively.

The throat singers, Evie Mark and Taqralik Partridge, were soloists in Alexina Louie’s “Take the Dog Sled.”  Written for the same chamber ensemble as “A Soldier’s Tale” – violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion – the throat singers occasionally make their intriguing grunting noises into each other’s vocal cavities creating striking resonances.  But the score -- written in eight sections meant to describe different aspects about the way nature and society interact in the North -- was most effective when the instruments themselves imitated the sounds of nature. The Inuits added but one more texture.

The “Soldier’s Tale,” on the other hand, was overloaded with texture.  Stravinsky intended this saga of a soldier who is tricked by the devil but eventually wins a princess to be the basis of a small traveling show for three actors and septet in the aftermath of World War I.  At the Broad, James Cromwell was an avuncular narrator, Jordan Belfi a lively and earnest soldier and Hattie Winston a sassy devil.  All read from scripts but were compelling stage presences.
In the background, Friedkin projected drawings by the early 20th century Czech artist Alfred Kubin that were far darker in tone than the bright American actors -- but they looked great.  An unnecessary layer of dance, however, conflicted with the Kubin.  The choreography by Kate Hutter and David Bridel was superficially illustrative. The dancers were Michael Crotty as the high-stepping soldier and Devin Fulton and the flirtatious princess. 
In 1988, Nagano made an aggressive recording of “Soldier’s Tale” with Sting as a cockney soldier, Ian McKellen as a self-consciously mellifluous narrator and Vanessa Redgrave as a cackling devil.  Nagano is now a sophisticated Stravinskyan.  And however much Saturday’s production gave the impression of having been slapped together at the last minute, the handsome musical performance did not. 

It is hard not to mention the irony of Nagano leading this makeshift Stravinsky production the same weekend John Adams conducted his newest opera, “A Flowering Tree” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Nagano happens to be one of Adams' most eloquent interpreters and a longtime collaborator with Peter Sellars, who directed the Philharmonic production.  The “Tree,” I hope, beckons.     

-- Mark Swed

Photo:  Bassoonist Mathieu Harel performs Stockhausen's "Im Freundschaft" at the Broad Stage on Saturday (top), Kent Nagano conducts members of the Montreal Symphony with narrator James Cromwell in Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale."  Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times